Okay, here’s an admission. The scariest movie experience I ever had was courtesy of the 1972 classic, SON OF THE BLOB (or, as you may know it by its alternative title BEWARE! THE BLOB). Now, of course I view this movie as horrific for entirely different reasons. Directed by Larry Hagman, with a cast including Shelly Berman, Dick Van Patten, Godfrey Cambridge and Cindy Williams (pre-Shirley) and shot with all the style and forethought one would expect from a Malibu celeb doing a B-Horror movie on a lark between iconic TV shows. But then, with an 8-year-old’s logical processing of what was scary and what was not scary, The Blob was truly frightening.
It went like this: If you couldn’t get away from the lumbering Frankenstein monster, then you deserved to die. Dracula, the Wolfman – there were pretty easy to follow rules and regulations to both avoid those guys and kill them. Not The Blob. No, you couldn’t kill The Blob. It could squeeze through the tiniest cracks to get you. And you could freeze it, but there was always a chance it could thaw out again and eat lots more people.
And, naturally the night I saw it, I was camping out afterwards so I enjoyed a sleep-free night staring first at the tent’s mesh entrance knowing that could in no way possible stop The Blob from getting in. The second line of defense (otherwise known as my sleeping bag), proved just as lame as a Blob-stopper. After I had hunkered down and zipped myself completely inside my Blob-free cocoon, I could totally see light creeping in (exactly where the blob would) the spaces in between the zipper teeth.
I was a kid. And when you’re a kid watching horror, it’s all about how could you escape, how could you kill the bad guy or thing, how could you survive against unspeakable evil. It’s a puzzle to solve, a game with the highest stakes.
I’ve seen a lot of horror films. I badgered my parents or older brother or anyone that could and would take me to a drive-in to see brilliant films like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) to not-so-brilliant (but very entertaining) double features like THE BOY WHO CRIED WEREWOLF (1973) and SSSSSSS (1973). I scoured the TV Guide to see what scary movie hosts like the legendary Sammy Terry in Indianapolis to South Florida’s Dr. Paul Bearer might introduce me to.
And then, THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1974) happened. I saw it years after it first hit theaters and one scene always stuck with me. Leatherface meets Pam and Kirk, then introduces Kirk to a bad-a*s mallet and Pam to a big meat hook.
End of story. That was an entire different level of horror. ALIENS (1986) was the next one to really get me because it introduced a pure dread to the proceedings. I knew what was going to happen there. You knew it, the person next to you knew it, everyone in the damned theater knew it but those idiot space marines and people from the corporation. They literally had it coming to them. Especially Paul Reiser. Weasel.
So, it was all about shock and dread: Shock that would take your breath away and dread that would turn you inside out wanting to avoid the inevitable.
But that’s really hard to come by now. And I don’t know if it’s because I’m older and have seen A LOT of horror films or if it’s because filmmakers just haven’t been pulling it off recently. Midnight at the Sundance Film Festival was saving me for awhile. 28 DAYS LATER (2002), WOLF CREEK (2005) and GRACE (2009) combined with other great films like OLD BOY (2003) and HARD CANDY (2005) to satisfy my hard-core scare me/thrill me urges. But this year, no such luck.
Earlier this year, Sundance brought about FROZEN, THE VIOLENT KIND and SPLICE. FROZEN was easily the most successful of the trio in trying to reach that sublime combo of shock and dread, but what I saw as Adam Green’s very admirable refusal to overreach also by default caused it to land just shy of that real sweet spot. Again, I thought it was a solid, successful movie. Just not quite there. THE VIOLENT KIND was done in by false expectations. By all accounts, this film was gonna pit some hard case bikers versus some bloody take-no-prisoners demons and someone was bound to wind up as evil’s bitch. Try again. It turned out to be a trippy Sci-Fi 50s David Lynchian mind trip into horror. Cool and weird? Yes. Balls out scary? Not quite. (To be fair, I know this film has gone through some re-edits, so it gets another shot at the scary brass ring at the Sitges Film Festival in October.) SPLICE had the horror pump primed. I sat in a standing-room-only audience ready for Adrien Brody, Sarah Polley and some weird but hot mix of kangaroo meets exotic French model combo to mess with me in the right kind of way.
And then that moment happened. That moment that occurs in films like these where you realize, “Hey, this is weird, WTF kinda s**t, but it is not scary in the least.” I felt the entire audience sag against their chairs and sigh. This wasn’t the one. Not by a mile. In fact, if you were harsh you would say it walked right up to edge and peered down at silly before creeping back away into morose-ville. I mean, c’mon, it had Sarah Polley in it. By Canadian law it had to go there.
Which reminds me. The first ten minutes of the DAWN OF THE DEAD remake (2004). Now, that’s what I’m talking about. The entire movie is good, solid stuff, but that first ten minutes – that is shock AND dread and the entire world gone to hell in a zombified hand basket and all before Sarah can wipe the damn sleep out of her eyes.
But is that the best we can pull off? Ten minutes of true terror? The French delivered a trio of films FRONTIERS (2007), INSIDE (2007) and MARTYRS (2008) that made us look like we were making after school specials with an extra helping of arterial spray, but even that promise seems to have waned recently. Spain delivered REC (2007) and REC 2 (2009), which were both old school and crazy kitchen sink approaches to scaring the living crap out of you. But how many times can some new cops and firefighters get sent into the same apartment complex overrun by the infected? Actually, I’ve lived in apartment buildings in Hollywood so I know the answer to that – and I think we’ll see a few more sequels, if you know what I mean.
Anyway, this year, THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE (which I have yet to see) and A SERBIAN FILM have scored with the shock, disgust and gross-out crowd. But are they true horror? Do they have a place in the same spectrum that houses THE EXORCIST (1973) or even the first SAW outing (2004)? I don’t think so. And I just don’t see the next one coming down the pike. The remake-o-rama isn’t the answer because there are (for obvious reasons) no surprises there.
So now what? Will THE LAST EXORCISM do it for me, for us, for those like us that desperately hunger for the next great horror film? I mean, in the previews that girl gets all twisty creepy scary in a barn, right? But the early consensus seems pretty mixed. So, I don’t honestly know. I do know that there are A LOT of people like me, willing to trudge out to a midnight film in Park City instead of to that cooler than you karaoke party they might’ve been able to get into to. I see crowds at Chiller and Horror Fest and Frightfare weekends reliving the old scares and anxiously anticipating the next ones. My Facebook page is rife with semi-professional horror hotties and cut-rate indie scaremeisters cooking up gorefests on the cheap. None of which looks particularly inspired. I mean, I get it. Cleavage plus blood equals a hot DVD cover for your merchandise table, but I need more. Much more. I need shock AND dread. I need a legit, give me nightmares for awhile and keep reliving the moment scare.
Of course, there is the specter of that Rob Zombie version of THE BLOB lurking out there…